Libel and Slander

Libel and Slander are forms of defamation. A defamatory statement is one that tends to disparage reputation or holds a person open to public ridicule, hatred and contempt or tends to lower him/her in the estimation of the community.

Libel is a defamatory statement that is written or printed. Slander refers to spoken defamatory statements.

Libelous and slanderous statements may be the basis of a lawsuit if the following elements exist:

  1. The statements are untrue.
  2. The speaker is negligent in determining the truth or falseness of the statement.
  3. The speaker is not protected by a recognized privilege.

If the statements are true they cannot be the basis of a libel or slander action even if they harm one's reputation. Even if untrue, defamatory statements are not actionable unless a reasonable person under the circumstances would have realized that the statements were not true. Therefore, the speaker must be negligent in not realizing the falsity of the statements.

If the statements concern a public figure, public official or a well-known person more than negligence must be established. It must be shown that the statements were made with actual malice. Actual malice is proven when it is shown that the speaker acted with actual knowledge that the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were true or not.

Some statements, even if clearly defamatory, are not actionable if the speaker is protected by a recognized privilege. For instance, statements made in the Courtroom or, official acts, reports and records are typically privileged. As long as the protection granted by such a privilege is not abused and the statements fall within the scope of that privilege, a lawsuit cannot be maintained.

There is also a qualified privilege in situations when the statement is made without actual malice, when the speaker has reasonable grounds to believe it to be true and when it concerns a subject matter in which the speaker has a legitimate interest. An example of a qualified privilege includes statements made in business settings such as an employer's defamatory statements to another employer, explaining the reason for firing an particular employee.

The damages recoverable in a libel or slander action are those that will compensate the injured party for his or her losses. This would include both direct financial losses and an award calculated by the jury to compensate the harm done to the victim's reputation. In some cases, punitive damages may be awarded. Punitive damages are additional damages whose purpose is to punish the speaker for particularly malicious conduct.  5/11

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